Top US Government Doctor Declares Loneliness a Big Health Problem

    08 May 2023

    America's top spokesperson on public health, the U.S. surgeon general, recently said loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

    Dr. Vivek Murthy said loneliness costs the health industry billions of dollars each year, and he declared it the latest public health epidemic.

    In a report, Murthy said about half of U.S. adults say they have experienced loneliness.

    FILE - Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
    FILE - Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

    "We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It's like hunger or thirst. It's a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,"

    Murthy told The Associated Press (AP): "Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that's not right. That's why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing."

    To pull back the curtain means to show how something is or acts that is normally not seen in public.

    The declaration is meant to raise understanding about loneliness. However, it is not linked to federal financial support or programs meant to fight the problem.

    Recent research suggests that American have become less active with organized religion, community organizations and even their own family members. Research also shows Americans have reported an increase in feelings of loneliness. In addition to that, the number of households with a single unmarried person has doubled in the last 60 years.

    But this problem became more severe with the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and workplaces closed and millions of Americans were separated from family and friends.

    The surgeon general's report said individual Americans reduced their friend groups and spent less time with friends who remained. Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends in 2020, down from 60 minutes a day 20 years earlier.

    The loneliness epidemic is especially affecting young people aged 15 to 24. The age group reported a 70 percent drop in time spent with friends during the same period.

    The report said loneliness increases the risk of an early death by nearly 30 percent. And it said people with poor social relationships have a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. The research found lack of social activity also increases the risk of developing mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and dementia.

    Murthy did not provide any data that shows how many people die directly from loneliness or lack of social activity.

    The surgeon general is calling on businesses, schools, community organizations, parents, and others to make changes that will increase the country's level of connection.

    He advised people to join community groups and put down their phones when they are meeting friends. Murthy also advised employers to consider their policies for working away from their offices. And he called on health systems to provide training for doctors to recognize the health risks of loneliness.

    Murthy said technology has increased loneliness. One study in the report researched people who used social media for two hours or more a day. It found that the group was more than twice as likely to report feeling a lack in social connection than those who spent less than 30 minutes a day on social media.

    Murthy said social media is driving the increase in loneliness. His report suggests that technology companies formulate protections for children especially around their social media behavior.

    Murthy said there is no replacement for in-person interaction. He added that Americans are using technology more for communication. He wondered: "We lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships as opposed to weaken them?"

    I'm Caty Weaver.

    Lindsey Tanner reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    epidemic n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people

    thirstn. an uncomfortable feeling that is caused by the need for something to drink

    shadow n. an area of darkness created when a source of light is blocked

    single –adj. not married

    stroken. a serious illness caused when a blood vessel in your brain suddenly breaks or is blocked

    interactionv. to talk or do things with other people